A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon

By Craig D. Allert
Grand Rapids : Baker (2007). 203 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Kelly Osborne
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 243-246

The canon of the writing of Scripture ought to be vitally important to everyone engaged in careful study of the biblical texts, Old or New Testament. But it is a subject that is often challenging to investigate, difficult to understand, and fraught with controversy, as demonstrated by Craig D. Allert (hereafter CA), Associate Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Trinity Western University (Langley, British Columbia), in his book, A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. Professor Allert attempts to correct what he sees as a defective view of the NT canon held by evangelical Christians in general and inerrantists in particular (“Introduction” 9-12) which he describes as “a ‘dropped out of the sky’ understanding of the Bible” (10). He continues,

What I mean by this is that since the Bible is the primary source for evangelical faith and life, it is taken for granted as being always there and handed on to us as such. We give little thought to the question of why we have this particlar collection (10).

CA contends that unless evangelical Christians take into account the “how, when and why” of the biblical canon’s formation, their view of Scripture will be low, even if they believe it to have been inerrantly inspired (10-11). On the other hand, only by appreciating the complexities of the canonization process in context, that is, without “forcing and reading modern presumptions and presuppositions into the ancient evidence,” can one have a high view of Scripture (13).

CA explicitly affirms the authority of scriptural revelation, but exactly what this means is not clear, since he spends most of chapter 6 (“Inspiration and Inerrancy”) criticizing the Evangelical Theological Society’s (ETS) decision which compelled Dr. Robert Gundry to resign from its ranks for having denied the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture in his scholarly work (159-72).

Between the Introduction and chapter 6, C A tries to define the basics of evangelical Christianity (chapter 1, “Evangelicals, Traditionalism and the Bible”), and to show how it has historically arrived at its “low” view of Scripture (17-36). In chapter 2 (“Introducing New Testament Canon Formation”) CA describes a typical but inadequate evangelical view of the NT canon (38-40), before discussing why it is inadequate (40-47), by showing that one can find a clear distinction in the patristic writings between the notions of Scripture and canon (44-47). He then offers his own three-phase outline of how the NT canon developed (48-52). In phase 1 “the central core of the present NT is already beginning to be treated as the main source for Christians,” although “it would be inappropriate to say that the canon was fixed” (50). This stage extends to about the end of the first century (50). Phase 2 covers the second and third centuries in which the less frequently used NT writings, such as Acts, the shorter Catholic Epistles and minor Pauline Epistles, as well as Revelation, are cited more often by the patristic writers. Nevertheless, “still no one thought of Scripture as forming a fixed collection” (50). Phase 3 constitutes the final stage of development when “fourth-century rulings about the canon bec[a]me firm” and recognized from that time onwards all, but only, the twenty-seven books now known as the NT (51). The concluding section of chapter 2, titled “The Criteria of Canonicity,” treats four major tests usually given to explain why certain writings were recognized as canonical, i.e., apostolicity, orthodoxy, catholicity or widespread use, and inspiration (52-66). Here CA seeks to demonstrate that the church fathers referred to many doctrinally orthodox writings outside of the NT as inspired (60-65).

Chapter 3 (“Canon and Ecclesiology,” 67-86) emphasizes that, if the distinction CA sees between Scripture and canon holds, when the church fathers of the first four centuries refer to “the Scripture(s),” it is anachronistic to understand them as refering (only) to one or more of sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible (74). In addition, CA continues, if the NT canon was not closed until well into the fifth century, and if it developed in the way that it did, then “the Bible is the church’s book” because it “both grew in and was mediated through the church” (84). This, along with CA’s critique of doctrine of inerrancy as held by the ETS, really seems to form the central thesis of the book.

Chapters 4 (“A Closed Second-Century Canon?” 87-130) and 5 (“Two Important Fourth-Century Lists,” 131-45) attempt to show in detail from the writings of the church fathers that it is anachronistic to speak of a “closed canon” of NT writings until at least the end of the fourth century, well after Eusebius of Caesarea’s listing in his Historia Ecclesiae (ca. A.D. 330-340) and Athanasius’ famous Festal letter (A.D. 367). First, CA argues that even as a result of the controversies with heretics of the second century, i.e., Marcionism, Gnosticism and Montanism, the church still did not finalize the NT canon (88-103), and, secondly, that the evidence of the church fathers, especially Irenaeus, suggests that they valued an oral Rule of Faith far more than any of the apostolic writings (108-26). CA continues in chapter 5 by challenging the widespread (evangelical) perception that the comments of Eusebius and Athanasius indicate an unequivocally settled NT canon by the end of the fourth century (131-45).

Although they cannot be addressed in detail, several points must be made in response to CA’s arguments. First, on the positive side, this reviewer agrees with CA that many, perhaps most, theologically conservative evangelicals, especially at the popular level (10), have at best an inadequate understanding of the formation of both parts of the biblical canon, but particularly the NT. Those who believe strongly in the complete, divine authority of an inerrant but limited—to the sixty-six books of the OT and NT—Scripture must be conversant with how it has come down to the present day and why only these particular writings possess ultimate authority for the believer’s faith, doctrine, and practice. In challenging shallow thinking on this subject, CA has do ne a great favor to every thoughtful believer.

Second, however, CA has completely accepted Albert Sundberg’s extreme view that neither the NT writers nor the earlier church fathers (2nd to 4th centuries) referred to a closed OT canon (44-47). This is a key point in CA’s overall argument, but it is not a strong one, since as good or better evidence to the contrary exists. It can be shown, for example, that the only books which NT writers clearly cite as Scripture conform to what is recognized by most Protestants today as the OT canon (cf. D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed., Zondervan, 2005, 730-32).

Third, CA’s interpretation of some of the key evidence in the church fathers, especially Irenaeus (late 2nd century), is certainly questionable. According to CA, “Irenaeus confirms that the church of the second century really had no need of a written canon because it already had a canon of truth” (125). By “canon of truth” CA means an oral one. It is even clearer, however, that in this context Irenaeus is speaking of conversions to Christ among illiterate barbarians (Against Heresies, book 3, chapter 4, section 2), whereas he spends almost the entire remainder of the book defending orthodox doctrines (over against various heretical views), using and basing his arguments throughout on the NT writings (Against Heresies, book 3, chapters 9-23). This suggests that CA has reviewed the patristic evidence so selectively that he himself is offering an inadequate view of the formation of the NT canon.

Fourth, even if it is true that many evangelicals are unaware of the complexities of the early church’s final recognition of the NT canon and perhaps refer (perhaps anachronistically) to “the Bible of the church fathers,” this does not change the fact that by early in the second century almost all of the NT writings were already being regarded by patristic writers in a manner similar to how most first-century Jews treated the OT writings, namely, as uniquely authoritative communications from God (cf., F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, IVP, 1988, 41), whether or not they say so exp licitly. Merely because the church fathers do not use the word “canon,” or actually write about restricting the collection of supremely authoritative works to particular writings, does not mean that a de facto canon did not already exist, as can be shown from how frequently NT writings are cited in early patristic sources (cf. Carson and Moo, 733).

Finally, this reviewer’s considered opinion is that CA’s work constitutes a warning to every believer who holds to the inerrancy of both Old and New Testaments, and therefore their ultimate divine authority (cf. Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article I, in Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 4, Word, 1979, 212). If CA is correct in concluding that “the church has something to say about what the Bible says because the Bible is the church’s book,” and, though useful as “a standard of measurement,” the Bible “could not and did not function in the early church as the only standard for texts” (173-74; author’s emphasis), it follows that “the proper lens of interpretation … [is] the ecclesial canons of the church in which the Bible grew” (175). The question must then be asked, how far away is this position from that of either the (Eastern) Orthodox Church (“the Church alone … can interpret Holy Scripture with authority,” in T. Ware, The Orthodox Church, rev. ed., Penguin, 19 93, 199), or the Roman Catholic Church (“both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence,” in A. Flannery, Vatican Council II, “Dei Verbum,” 9, 755)? CA’s book is a vivid reminder that one can deny in practice what one affirms in theory, namely, “the authority and sufficiency of Scripture” (175). To do so in matters such as the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, which are so foundational to one’s understanding of the biblical text, can this not lead to disaster (cf. 2 Tim 2:16-18)?